It might seem that memoir and oral history, although both forms of life narrative, do not have much in common. One text is written, the other oral; one demands an individual author, while in the other "authorship" exists in the interplay between interviewer and storyteller; one concerns the self, while the other moves outward, as the oral historian strives to capture another's voice and story on tape and page; one is a shaped narrative, a close cousin to fiction, the other seemingly closer to fact and truth (troubling as those concepts are) as the words "transcript" and "archive" suggest.
As a teacher of both creative writing and American Studies, however, I have long thought that the two genres are close relatives. Both are forms of narrative in which ordinary people claim the authority to tell their own stories; both are forms tinged by imagination as well as memory (since the oral history narrative, like memoir, is shaped by selection and omission, as well as by the length of the interview and the interaction between interviewer and storyteller). And memoir, like oral history, arises from the interconnection of two or more sensibilities, since memoirists commonly write of relationship to others, as well as to the self in the past. Both are concerned with memory, history, and story, and both challenge time by retrieving something from the flood of the past and preserving it for the future.
In the spring of 1996, along with Susan Rose, a sociologist, and Chuck Barone, an economist, I team-taught an experimental one-semester course in multiculturalism and diversity called "American Mosaic" at Dickinson College. The overarching project of the course was a community study of Steelton, Pennsylvania, a multiethnic community in the greater Harrisburg area. (The project is described in greater detail by Marjorie McLellan elsewhere in this issue.)
My responsibility was the memoir component of the course. During the first six weeks students read memoirs and began writing their own during workshops, and the writing workshops continued during the second six weeks. I suspected that oral history and memoir would complement each other. I was also eager to teach memoir writing to students who would never have signed up for a creative writing course, assuming, like most of us, that they were not "creative." But, as one of my fiction teachers once observed, "Everyone has a story that only they can tell." I knew this was as true of Dickinson students as it was of steelworkers and community members in Steelton. I hoped that as they realized every person in Steelton possessed a story, our students would begin to see and to shape their own. I also hoped that the resulting cross-fertilization would strengthen both memoir writing and ethnography.
A guideline for memoir, as for fiction, is "Show, don't tell"--a slogan reminding the writer not to use abstractions or unconvincing adjectives, but to rely on details, images, and scenes to convey meaning. Working with this method also prepares a student to be a good observer and interviewer, so I decided here was where we should begin. The memoir I assigned for this purpose was Charlotte Nekola's Dream House, a historically detailed and lyrically melancholy account of growing up in 1950s America in a middle-class family riddled with unspoken sadness and loss.(1) Nekola, who is also a poet, brilliantly uses metaphoric objects and actions to suggest larger levels of meaning--a man's suitcase, packed with ironed shins and a bottle of Jim Beam; a woman's recipe box; a can opener; Dick and Jane schoolbooks; road trips in finned cars. The narrator, trying to deduce the past from the scraps of evidence left behind, pays exquisite attention to such details because, regarded with the right eye, they can yield meaning: "You could tell that [Aunt Grace] was a woman of the working world only because there were stacks of scrap paper, in different places in the house, made out of 8 x 12 paper torn into four quarters. The backs of the papers were covered with blue print from a ditto machine; they had been grammar exercises of the tedious kind that English teachers seldom give out these days."(2)
My first in-class free-writing assignment--"Describe an object or space important in your family past"--sent students on the path toward metaphor by anchoring them in the concrete, finely observed detail--the birthplace of good writing and, I think, of good interviewing. One student would later show the power of such detail in her description of a childhood visit to her father in prison:
The vending machine sold gum, bags of Doritos, and candy bars,
which were placed between metal coils and identified by a system
similar to church bingo: E4 = pack of Trident, B6 = Hershey's
chocolate, B7 = Hershey's with almonds.... After you punched
the right coordinates, the coil twisted and the candy bar crashed
down below. A huge metal door stood between me and the candy
bar that had just plummeted down. I was certain that when I was
retrieving my Three Musketeers the door would crash down on my
hand and trap me in that metal beast mouth forever.
The writer does not need to say, "When I visited my father in prison, I felt imprisoned too"--we see that. And how pale and reductive that sentence seems next to the chilly vision of the ominous vending machine.
We hoped that the students could draw on these "literary" skills in their work as sociologists and oral historians. One of the first assignments my colleague Susan Rose gave was to create a portrait of a community member the student had interviewed. She asked the students to "bring the person to life" through description, detail, dialog. This attempt to encourage "showing" as well as "telling" did not work as well as we had hoped. Students, for the most part, relied too much on abstraction. (One exception was the student who noticed the hard hat in a union official's office as well as his crisp shirt and tie--signs of his double allegiance to his working-class origins and his managerial role.) By the end of the course, however, many more students were selecting relevant details effectively, both in creating portraits and in interviewing.
Memoir and oral history are also linked by the concept of voice. We wanted our students to discover (or create) their own voices as writers, and in turn learn how to listen to the voices of Steelton residents. For this purpose I assigned Ben Hamper's Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line, a first-person recollection, told in a jaunty, at times in-your-face working-class voice, of Hamper's life and work on the General Motors assembly line.(3) This is a useful memoir to teach particularly when students will be interviewing people from working-class backgrounds. Hamper's raucous narrative raises questions about the links between class, language, and power. I asked the students to analyze a passage from Hamper and then to write a passage inspired by his voice. In response to this prompt, a young woman from a working-class background but "passing" at middle-class Dickinson ("I was a J. Crew lookalike.") moved from a generic writing style into this lively voice as she reconnected to her own past:
Schuylkill County, PA. Home of the Yuengling Brewery and Mrs.
T's pierogies. The birthplace of the Dorsey brothers and anthracite
coal mines. A place where fashion is ten years behind the rest of
the country. A place where the popular guys have a rusty car in the
backyard up on cinder blocks. A place where the steep coal banks
can be mistaken for mountains, and the biggest tourist attraction is
a town that's been on fire underground tot over twenty years.
At the same time, this author developed greater sensitivity as an interviewer of retired steelworkers, learning to ask the questions that allowed them to speak in their own voices.
Perhaps the narrative that most dramatically combines memoir and oral history is Art Spiegelman's Maus.(4) Spiegelman's rendition of his father's experience in the Holocaust is based upon taped interviews that the author conducted with his father over a period of years (interviews which can be heard on the CD-ROM version of Maus). In the text, Spiegelman interweaves his father's story of the past with the conflicted relationship of father and son in the present, including several scenes of the son interviewing the father. Spiegelman is bluntly honest about Art's frequent insensitivity, portraying himself as the single-minded interviewer who at times ignores the wishes of the subject in order to get the story. ("Back to Auschwitz," he keeps urging the father who at times wants to talk about anything else.) Assigning this memoir in the context of doing oral history can keep students and faculty sensitive to the moral and ethical issues involved in interviewing.
In the context of teaching memoir, I used Maus to encourage my students to broaden their empathy as writers. I gave a free-writing assignment in which I asked students to take on the voice of a character they were representing in their memoir. In response, one student--who was writing a memoir centering on her schizophrenic uncle---came up with her finest piece of writing, an account of a hallucination from her uncle's point of view that showed her ability to cross the boundary between self and other:
I begin to move around the room, trying to avoid the falling darkness.
I run into the next room hoping the darkness will drain away,
like water does in the shower. I can see it coming after me. The
darkness is creeping on the floor like a giant amoeba. I throw
things at it to stop it from grabbing my feet. Stay away from my
feet! I am standing in the far corner of the bedroom, watching the
darkness creep toward me.
By the end of the course, every student had written a memoir that combined emotional depth with some level of aesthetic control; in turn, the memoir work enriched the oral history and community study component of the course. The forms of interplay between memoir and oral history are not easy to measure objectively, but my colleagues and I believe they were profound. As the students gradually became better listeners to the voices of others, they learned how to listen to their own; as they recognized that others had stories to tell, they realized that they did, as well. The questions they were asking of others they began to ask of themselves; the answers they were hearing caused them to look deeper into their own lives; the empathy they were gaining for their subjects aided them in creating characters in memoir, just as the empathy they gained in writing memoir strengthened the connection they felt with the residents of Steelton. Both forms of storytelling, memoir and oral history, enrich and deepen each other, and I hope that faculty from a variety of disciplines and programs--American studies, English, creative writing, history, African American and ethnic studies, women's studies--will find ways to juxtapose these genres in their teaching.
(1) Charlotte Nekola, Dream House (St. Paul: Greywolf, 1995).
(2) Nekola, 18.
(3) Ben Hamper, Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line (New York: Warner Books, 1991).
(4) Art Spiegelman, Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History (New York: Pantheon, 1992); Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began (New York: Pantheon, 1991).
Sharon O'Brien is John Hope Caldwell Professor of American Cultures at Dickinson College. Currently she is completing a memoir. "'A Certain Slant of Light': Reflections on Depression in America."…